What is that Ominous Sound?

150 years ago, ghost stories were scary. I mean, really scary - even though there was nothing to be scared of except vague hints that something otherworldly was hidden but close.

They can still be unsettling - just as unseen footsteps behind you on a dark night can be unsettling - but I don't think even a young child could find them terrifying, not now.

The Hound of the Baskervilles used to be a gothic horror story thinly disguised as a detective puzzle. Now it's a quaint detective puzzle with even quainter gothic elements.

Some say we've seen too much non-fictional horror - world wars, smaller wars that last decades, genocide and natural disasters - for the dimly glimpsed incomprehensible other to be scary. Parallel realities, shape-shifting lizards secretly controlling the world. godlike aliens - if anything, these are romantic notions now.

But surely there was plenty of real-life horror in 1901 when Doyle wrote about the hound. Cholera, starvation, infant death, industrial accidents and gangs of violent criminals were more common in developed countries then than they are now. So I'm not sure.

It's clear we can and do enjoy James, Poe, Lovecraft etc today. So either we enjoy them in a completely different way, or we're not so different from out great-grandparents as we thought.


  1. I read a theory somewhere which ran along the lines that ghosts were killed by improvements in medicine. Because sudden death from infectious disease has become less common, and people when they do die tend to die in hospitals or hospices rather than at home, death has become a much less immediate prospect. That means that the idea of life after death has also (for those who believe in it at all) become less tangible and more remote - so people think of the dead as taking a vague interest in them from afar, not as being just in the next room, and almost as real as the living.

    I don't know that's a particularly good explanation. My dad - who enjoyed a ghost story - always used to say it was electric light that made the difference, and particularly streetlights - i.e. an external light source controlled from a distance. Certainly a candle blowing out in a mysterious gust of wind and plunging the protagonist in sudden, terrifying darkness is a feature of quite a lot of Victorian ghost stories. My dad always made a point of reading MR James whenever there was a powercut...

  2. I think I'd have liked your dad.

    One of the things I retain from working with marxists is a mistrust of single explanations - and a belief in overdetermination.

    I'm sure the growth of hospitals, the lessening of religion, the advance of science, and mod cons like the electric light have all played a part in reducing our tendency to be afraid of the dark. And even if half of these things hadn't happened, we'd still be nearly as unafraid.

    There's probably a psychology paper waiting to be written on how deeply religious people are more scared by ghost stories than us sensible folk.